The year 1993 saw the last of the full-price commercial games for the C64 hit the shelves as the market for 8-bit fare was finally grinding to a halt. In amongst the classics such as Alien 3, Lemmings and Nobby the Aardvark there was one game that was only available via mail-order. John and Steve Rowlands had already produced such games as Retrograde and Creatures for Thalamus, and they now decided to venture out and sell their final C64 title themselves. It was a shrewd move, their reputation and lack of paying a middleman would hopefully give them just as good sales and more cut of the profits. Of course it wouldn't matter much if the game itself was a stinker; however there really wasn’t any chance of it being anything but great.
Mayhem the dinosaur, blessed with speed and a large snout, has to undo all the bad magic that his friend Theo Saurus has accidentally unleashed upon five worlds, stripping them of their colour. In a way this takes a similar cue from the earlier Wizball but the mechanics are very much different. Mayhem must collect bags of magic dust that are carried by certain enemies around each level; once ten bags are collected then all the colours can be restored. However there is leftover dust now floating about the level in the form of stars, so Mayhem must then collect up a proportion of the remainder before skidding over the finish line for a big bonus.
Like many platform games it’s a fairly simple concept overall but the execution is utterly superb. One of the first things you discover is just how smooth the scrolling is, even more so when Mayhem’s turbocharge ability is acquired and he starts zooming about like Billy Whizz, or dare I say it, Sonic the Hedgehog. The comparison is certainly well-intended; the Rowlands aimed to make the lead character a cross between Mario and Sonic and deliver something extremely console-like upon a home computer. Even at full pelt you can see exactly what is going on, even if that often happens to be coming a cropper from various obstacles.
Speed is very much essential on parts of each level, be it to fly across a gaping chasm, launch yourself to grab seemingly out of reach stars or ram a vulnerable enemy using Mayhem’s horn. Other enemies can be dispatched by bouncing on their heads Mario-style and some are completely invincible. Like many platformers knowing the level layout is essential to victory but many parts can be tackled in varying ways, always offering a new strategy or technique, and sometimes allowing for choices that may not have been originally considered. Throughout out the game there is much to be discovered and learnt, such as finding the bonus score multipliers and using them effectively to maximise their effect.
The other notable aspect once you complete the first half of each level is how colourful, bright and vivid the designs truly are. Each is built upon a theme, be it cherries or spots for example, and you would think that the C64 couldn’t possibly display all this at the same time. In truth you would be part right; Mayhem was apparently the first game to use a range of demo techniques, including chequering two colours together to make it seem like a third was present. The screen just screams “look at me” towards you, and is a veritable panacea to those who insist the C64 was only capable of displaying muddy browns and greys.
While the visuals were bucking the assumed stereotype for C64 titles, the standard difficulty level gradient was certainly present and correct. In other ways it starts tricky and gets much harder as you progress. A lot harder. Mayhem challenges your skill, your reactions and your temperament in equal measure, as dying is often an all too frequent occurrence, especially on the fifth and final level. That is the challenge set before you, and whilst it might cause the odd controller shaped dent to appear in the wall, if it wasn’t as fun and addictive to play then it wouldn’t cause you to pick it back up again and have another attempt. Assuming the controller survived that is.
About the closest comparison made would be the Megaman series; there is something intangible about both that for all the gnashing of teeth and blueness of the air, it compels you to play, taunting you to defeat it and at the same time, rewarding you for persistence and invention in overcoming the obstacles in your way. Even with a title such as this where wrenching the joystick left and right was commonplace, translating that to the Nintendo D-pad or stick isn’t such a bad substitute where up is used to jump, down to duck/skid and the button fires up the afterburners. Many jumps however are also of the Mario ilk, carefully timed more slow affairs, so suddenly moving your thumb upwards slightly to leap isn’t such the problem as may first appear.
Fifteen years ago the magazine Commodore Format awarded the game a somewhat controversial review score of 100%. While not perfect, it is a shining example of what the C64 could accomplish over its lesser rivals (albeit having been vanquished by this point) and still stands the test of time today. It is the gaming equivalent of the bunny from Holy Grail; it might look cute and fluffy on the outside but underneath lies a vicious killer waiting to challenge all that take it on. Thankfully the journey itself is one to remember.